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What the cat knows

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Since the publication of his seminal Straw Dogs (2002), John Gray – a New Statesman reviewer and essayist – has defended a distinctive, and pleasingly subversive, philosophy of humans and their histor
y. It is difficult to encapsulate this philosophy in a single sentence, let alone a word, but anti-directionalism comes close.

Anti-directionalism is a multifaceted view. One form it takes is scepticism about historical progress. The idea that history has a direction, and that one can be on the right or wrong side of it, is a conceit shared by those on the political left and right. Inspiration for the left was provided by Hegel, who thought history came to an end when he added the full stop to the final sentence of his book, The Phenomenology of Spirit: "History is the process whereby the spirit discovers itself and its own concept." This is what Hegel, modestly, thought he had achieved. Marx and his followers took up this idea, recasting it in materialist form, and understanding the end of history as the emergence of a perfect – ie communist – society. On the right, Francis Fukuyama adopted a similar approach, except he took the most perfect form of society to be modern liberal democracy. History, it must be said, has not been kind to these declarations of its demise.

Another form anti-directionalism takes is the denial that nature, rather than culture, has a direction. In some ways, this seems an unnecessary denial – Darwin already divested us of the right to believe that nature has a direction. Nevertheless, we still can't quite seem to shake the idea. At one time, people believed in something called the "great chain of being". The universe was ordered into levels of being: God at the top, then the angels, then humans, then the animals, and so on. Below the angels but above the animals: that is our place. The theory of evolution should have shattered this chain. But, strangely, it didn't. Darwin's discovery was, in the minds of many, superimposed on the great chain of being. Evolution was conflated with progress: a process slowly producing in more-and-more perfect life forms, with us, of course, at the top of the evolutionary tree.

John Gray's engaging new…
Mark Rowlands
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